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Our Land; Our Waters; Our Future

by George Pletnikoff

November 16, 2009

Our Land and our Waters: Our Future

As Unangan (Aleut) people who have lived and survived on the Islands of the Aleutian Chain for almost 10,000 years, our survival and our foods have always come from the waters surrounding our Island villages.

The Pribilof Islands were discovered in 1786 by Russian navigator Gavriil Pribilof, ending a three-year search by Siberian merchants for the breeding site of the valuable fur seals. The roaring of seals drew Pribilof’s boat through the summer fog to St. George Island. Thus the Pribilof Islands. These islands were not inhabited when discovered. Following this discovery, small bands of Unangan were enslaved to these islands from the Aleutian Chain to protect and harvest the millions of fur seals found there. Thus began a 200 year history of a people misplaced by governments eager to make money off of the vast resources found then and now in the form of fish and crab. The legacy of slavery seems to continue into twenty-first century America.

Today the descendents of the enslaved Unangan, done first by Russia and later by America, are struggling to survive on the islands in which our ancestors made a living and in which many are buried. The once abundant northern fur seal populations, once ranging in number into the millions, are now numbered around 550,000 and steadily declining. The millions of pounds of king and tanner crab fishery are either a fraction of what they once were or are now closed due to overfishing. Today only a small percentage of fish once so abundant are now being taken by a hand full of large industrialized factory trawlers, long liners and crabbers, many coming to the Bering Sea from far away ports in the lower 48 states.

Traditional foods are moving away, or in many cases becoming so stressed due to the lack of their own foods, that the Unangan are finding it very difficult to fill their needs. With store bought foods so expensive and non-nutritious, the Unangan are once again facing an uncertain future. Again a group of people taken from their homes to protect and harvest fur seal may be forced to move from their homes because of poorly managed fisheries by the United States of America.

These distressing activities are not only happening to the Unangan of the Bering Sea, but to all coastal tribal communities who depend upon the waters for survival. For every village, its the water that provides and not the land.

As a result, the Alaska Federation of Natives recently passed a resolution at their 2009 convention in Anchorage to establish cultural heritage zones to help protect our foods and the habitat they depend upon in our waters. This is a major first step. Now our tribal governments must take the lead and begin to identify and designate these sites.

One such community is the Pribilof Island village of St. George. Their tribal leaders have been in discussions, workshops and research to find a solution to how the bottom trawlers can be stopped before critical benthic habitat is destroyed!

Recently both the Village Corporation and the tribal government of St. George have joined forces to seek cultural heritage zone protections for the waters immediately around their island as well as within the critical habitats of both the Pribilof and Zhemchug Canyons. What they are demanding our governments do is establish no trawl zones within twenty miles around St. George Island and no trawls deeper than 100 fathoms in both Canyons.

The leadership of our Tribes are also requesting that the State and Federal Governments responsible for the management of these resources formulate co- management agreements to ensure local input in any future decisions regarding the use of these fishery resources. This is about the survival of a people. This is about food security. This is about finally recognizing local tribal communities as valuable partners in the understanding of our nations ocean resources and seeking their valuable input in its management.

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